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October 2, 2005

Ornamental Hairpin, 1941

ornamental.gifOne of my favorite sequences in any film is the remarkably fluid lateral dolly shot through the financially ruined Furusawa household that opens Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion, so it is particularly satisfying to see Hiroshi Shimizu further refining this technique in the seemingly effortless, long take, outdoor tracking shot of a pair of weekend vacationers from Tokyo (a conversation about the pleasure of having the powder removed from their faces suggest that they are geisha) descending onto a hot spring resort that cuts into a lateral dolly shot through the rooms occupied by the longer-term residents of a resort inn. This visual convergence in Ornamental Hairpin serves as an impeccable foreshadowing of the narrative intersection between the two groups as one of the young women from the weekend revelers, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) inadvertently loses her ornamental hairpin in the spring waters and is "found" by a soldier in recuperation from a war injury (Chishu Ryu) who cuts his foot on the object. Attempting to downplay the incident, the soldier calls the episode as almost "poetic", a sentiment that the professor (Tatsuo Saito) then misconstrues as the soldier's implicit romanticism for the owner of the hairpin - "a poetic illusion" that now seems within grasp when Emi decides to come in person in order to retrieve her property and personally apologize for the mishap. Filmed during the uncertainty of the Pacific War, Shimizu's seemingly escapist, insular tale, based on a Masuji Ibuse short story, nevertheless reveals a crepuscular, allegorical meaning in the juxtaposition of the residents' romanticism towards the owner of the ornamental hairpin, and the final shot of Emi in mid-step ascending the staircase - a state of limbo, isolation, and fugue - a reluctant return to reality and dissipation of the poetic illusion.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Hiroshi Shimizu, Shochiku at 110


This is a film that inspired cinematic love at first sight for me. The performances and cinematography are wonderful -- but even more there is some elusive something underlying the superficially superficial plot -- something important seems to be hidden underneathm even if one can't quite put one's finger on what it is. I find it inconceivable that this gem of a film has remained undiscovered in the West so long. (And there is no hint that any of the Shimizu films will ever make it to Boston -- despite the fact that Shochiku lobbied the Harvard Film Archive to bring them here).

Posted by: Michael Kerpan on Oct 05, 2005 9:20 AM | Permalink

I was talking to this lady who thought that Emi's character was underformed and didn't understand why the film seemed to end so abruptly. So I told her about that first sequence about "melting" the powder off their faces, and how her recent "homelessness" then implied that she was a kept geisha who fell out of favor with her benefactor. In the end, I think she started to realize how socially and politically loaded this film really was, and wasn't just some breezy comedy of manners. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 05, 2005 12:29 PM | Permalink

Actually, Emi doesn't get "dumped" by her patron until she flatly refuses to leave the resort (despite her colleague's personally-delivered warning). She is apparently desperately uncomfortable with her situation in Tokyo -- and seizes the opportunity to go back to the resort and work on CR's physical rehabilitation to avoid having to confront it.

I lent this to an acquaintance, who blew this off as a piece of silly fluff. They aren't getting any more loans (of especially beloved films) from me!

Posted by: Michael Kerpan on Oct 05, 2005 12:45 PM | Permalink

I was under the impression that they had a fight of some sort, so she used the hairpin retrieval as an excuse to get away from him, the patron then got insulted that she walked out on him and threw her out of the house. But yes, I do remember the not-so-subtle pressure that the friend was exerting on her to go back to him.

I also get the sense that the scenario of the newlywed husband always consulting with his wife is also a code to say that people should think for themselves and not always defer to others, which was pretty much what was happening in wartime Japan. Sneaky devil, that Shimizu. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 05, 2005 3:41 PM | Permalink

I think the newlywed consultation joke was multi-layered. The character who insisted that the husband NOT consult his wife was stuffy and tyrannical (until tamed a bit). In a sense, he represented traditional patriarchical values -- and he is deferred to, but nonetheless often more than a little ridiculous (Saito is wonderful in this part -- conveying that he has an inkling of his own folly now and then).

Posted by: Michael Kerpan on Oct 05, 2005 3:48 PM | Permalink

I love this film. Judging from it and the few others by Shimizu i've seen (Japanese Girls at the Harbour, Masseurs and a Woman, Arigato-San), he's not only a real find for fans of classic Japanese cinema but should be much better known worldwide; the painterly eye, sense of composition, fluid cmaera of Mizoguchi, quiet humanity + gentle humour of Ozu, + Naruse's understated way with actors. Add in a love of nature, a feeling for location, and a wonderful sense of freedom. He makes it all look so easy.

Posted by: John Davies on Sep 08, 2008 4:49 PM | Permalink

"way with actors"; er, not knowing Shimizu's working methods to compare with Naruse, what i meant was his success in extracting natural + understated performances as Naruse managed.

Posted by: John Davies on Sep 08, 2008 4:55 PM | Permalink

Hi John, good to hear from you. I love Shimizu's lightness of touch, too. He has a wonderful way of "charging" scenes through subtle implication that reveal a great deal about the characters without ever being heavy handed or seem as though it was appended for clarification. His Children in the Wind and Four Seasons of Children, both based on Joji Tsubota's stories are pretty great too.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 08, 2008 9:16 PM | Permalink

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